Friday, February 15, 2013

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, February 17, 2013:

First Reading: Deuteronomy 26:1-11

Psalm: Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16

Second Reading: Romans 10:8b-13

Gospel: Luke 4:1-13

This week's text is the classic tale of Satan tempting Jesus in the desert. Jesus goes to the desert to find out "what it meant to be Jesus" (in the words of Frederick Beuchner). Jesus goes to the desert, that scorched, barren land. We begin our journey with Ash Wednesday, with scorched ashes from last season's palms that we used on Palm Sunday. Richard Pervo points out that it is a journey that starts in ash and ends in flames (think Pentecost). Along the way of our spiritual path, we will face similar temptations to the ones that Jesus faced.

The first temptation is the most basic: turn the stones into bread. Watch out for the needs of your physical body. Certainly the scriptures don't suggest that we should ignore our physical needs; indeed, we can't. But many of us go way beyond providing for our daily bread. We stockpile our resources. We save for a rainy day. We save for retirement. We end up with more money than we need, while our neighbors, both here and in other countries, starve so that we might satisfy our mad lust for security.

If we save our money, are we really trusting in God? If we ask God for our daily bread, but in fact we have a month's supply of bread in the freezer, and money to buy bread saved up for when we've consumed all the bread in the house, are we really trusting God?

At one point in my life, I would have scoffed at the idea that it was immoral to save money while our neighbors to the south starved. Now, I'm not so sure. UCC minister Lillian Daniel says, "The churches around the world might remind us of our wealth in light of their lack. They might point out that it is a luxury to have so much that we keep money in the bank--not just individuals, but congregations too."

Have I stopped saving money? No. I'm not that spiritually developed yet. But I do know of people who have a deeper trust that God will provide than I do--and they don't go hungry or lack for anything. It's something to think about, as so many of us don't even do basic tithing. At the very least, we should clear out our closets, and stop buying so much stuff that basically replaces our stuff that we already have, stuff that hasn't even worn out yet.

Satan then tempts Jesus with fame. All Jesus has to do is to worship Satan. We still live in a culture that worships the famous, that can't seem to get enough of the famous. We live in a time where people aren't even famous because they're talented or good-hearted or striving for justice.  I'm not sure why we're all so obsessed with the Kardashians and their ilk. 
Meanwhile, people who are doing truly miraculous good in the world go without acclaim. Luckily, this work provides rewards on multiple levels. If we've become Christians because we think it's a route to fame, we're in the wrong arena. Based on the people who are famous, I suspect most of us already know this. We don't seem to have very many people who are famous because of their breathtaking charity or their ability to bring light to a darkening world.

Most people assume that they can resist the temptation to worship Satan--and yet, even if we haven't sold our souls directly, many of us have plenty of other gods that come before God. Think about the life priorities of most people. It's hard to pray daily or give away 10% of our money. Many of us take on more debt, even though it means we'll be less free to follow God wherever God might lead us.

The last temptation is the temptation to control God. Satan tells Jesus to jump and to command the angels to catch him. Most of us aren't standing on ledges when we give in to this temptation. But how often do we pray in an attempt to control God? Maybe we pray for specific results to a problem. Maybe we pray for things we want, even if it's something that seems good, like an end to world hunger. Most of us aren't very patient with God's time scale. We wish God would just hurry up and show us the Divine Plan.

Let's face it, we want to be in control of our lives.  It's why we hoard our money and possessions, it's why we overeat or undereat or exercise too much or call our children several times a day. It's a natural, human response--and yet, it's one we should resist. Ash Wednesday reminds us that we're sinful creatures. Ash Wednesday reminds us that left to our own devices, we'll make a huge mess of everything.

The beauty of the cyclical nature of liturgical life is that it is full of chances to turn around. Even if you recognize that you've given in to these temptations or the many other temptations the world offers, it's not too late. God calls us to return. God gives us any number of welcome home parties. God waits patiently, like the father of the prodigal son. And God knows that we will stray again. Like keeping to a sensible eating plan, this spiritual path requires more vigilance than we can sustain all the time. And yet, the struggle to wage this spiritual warfare will yield results eventually.

Welcome to Lent, the season of ash and penitence. Repent, return, retool your lives. It is time again to commit to resurrection, to submit to the purifying flames of Pentecost. Turn away from the ashes and towards the light.

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